Category Archives: Non-fiction

The Next Battle Begins

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Don’t get mad. Get Organized!

With the arrival of Donald J. Trump in the oval office, the nation is faced with a large set of challenges. You may be tempted to throw up your hands and retreat from any sort of engagement. After all, what can one person, without billions of dollars and/or an army, actually do against the organized force of billionaires united in the looting of American financial and natural resources, and acting in concert in waging a one-sided class war on those of us who are not of their inner circle? Gene Stone has some answers.

It was certainly the case that grass roots activity, however much it was of the astro-turf variety, and funded by right-wing money men, was effective in making life for President Obama a living hell for almost all of his two terms. The lessons that were learned by the right came, ironically, from a left-wing organizer named Saul Alinsky. It is time for Democrats, liberals, progressives, moderates, anyone with a conscience to learn those lessons as well, and begin the long journey of political resistance that is our only hope of saving the nation from ruin.

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Gene Stone – from his Twitter page

Gene Stone offers a very accessible guide to how anyone might go about participating in this. The book covers twelve broad areas of concern; Civil Rights, The Economy, Education, Energy, Entitlement Programs, The Environment, Immigration, LGBTQ Issues, National Security, Obamacare, Political Issues, and Women’s Issues.

The layout is consistent from chapter to chapter. Each of the twelve topic chapters follows a format:
The Background
What Did Barack Obama Do?
What Might Donald Trump Do?
What Can you Do? – There are often subsections to this one. Things like
—–Organizations you can donate to
—–Organizations you can volunteer in
—–Sign Petitions
—–Make use of Social Media to communicate your concerns
Books to Read
The concluding chapter tosses in a potpourri of other subject areas.

As a definitive volume on how to oppose the incoming madness, this is far from complete. However, as an introductory pocket guide to how to get started, an easy intro to anyone looking to do something to oppose the reactionary programs that will be afflicting us all in the years ahead, this is an invaluable book. Short, very easy to read, specific enough on what the issues are, what options one might have for action, where one can look to apply those actions, and it offers extra sources of information for those eager to learn more about each subject area.

And some warnings stand out. For example,

Despite all the advances made in the LGBTQ community, many of them can be rolled back—quickly, easily, and effectively.

There are also some nice extra bits in here that made it an enjoyable as well as a useful read.

In 1812 Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that took redrawing he state’s district lines to such extremes that one district looked like a salamander. The term “gerrymander” was born and has been used ever since to describe this practice.

Maybe you knew that. I had no idea

I found the intro sections reasonable, although I did note a few items that merited a bit of correction. The author refers to “The Affordable Care Act, instantly and forever known as ObamaCare to foes and allies alike. “ Actually that was not the case. The right labeled the ACA as “Obamacare” as an insult, the same way they insist on calling the Democratic Party the “Democrat Party.” It was only after some time that Democrats decided to embrace the name. Stone also implies that the Democrats broke new ground by using budget reconciliation to get Obamacare passed, not mentioning that President Bush the second had done the same thing to pass his ruinous tax cuts. Minor gripes to what is, overall, a pretty useful book.

The Trump Survival Guide is no one’s idea of a comprehensive manual for the battles ahead. But it is most definitely an excellent intro, particularly for the vast majority of people who have never engaged in any sort of political activism before. The more people who are involved in fighting back, the likelier it is that crucial victories can be won. If you are at all concerned about what the Trumpinistas have planned, and are thinking about how you might be able to help in the movement to resist, checking this book out would be a great first step.

Review posted – January 20, 2017 – a date that will live in infamy

Publication date – January 10, 2017

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

I strongly suggest you also check out a document that was put together by former Congressional staffers, Indivisible. It can be downloaded for free at the linked site.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Public Health, Reviews

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

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Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. – D. Vader

Lisa Randall, a Harvard Science professor, member of the National Academy of Sciences, named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2007, and author of three previous books, likes to think big. She also likes to think small. Her areas of expertise are particle physics and cosmology, which certainly covers a range. The big look she offers here is a cosmological take on not only how it came to pass that a large incoming did in the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but why such decimations of life on Earth arrive with some (on a cosmological scale) regularity. Her explanation has to do with dark matter. It makes for an interesting tale, and offers an excellent example of how the scientific method (how Daniel Day Louis might play Louis Pasteur?) approaches problem-solving. It is a fascinating read that is at times wondrously accessible and at others like trying to bat away a swarm of meteoroids.

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Dark Matter

As with most good communicators of science. Randall relies on metaphor, and some of hers are quite good. My favorite compared methods of detecting dark matter to detecting the presence of [insert name of your favorite A-list celebrity here]. You can tell that there is something going on, without actually having to see the celebrity, because you can see swarms, gaggles, pods and packs of paparazzi clumping around the object of their lenses as he/she/it walks/primps/flees down the street. Dark matter affects the things around it too, and it is by measuring those effects that we can tell it is there, even though it remains…you know…dark.

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Lisa Randall – from her Twitter pages

She addresses some cosmological questions and offers up the answers that the best current theories provide. One example is that the rotational velocity of stars should be sufficient to make them literally spin out of their galaxies, and yet they don’t. Something must be keeping them in place. Care to guess? There are more like this. They vary in Wow-Cool! levels. Randall takes us from a look at how we know dark matter is out there, and its characteristics, to an overview of our solar system. This is more interesting than a science class slide show of the 8 (or 9 if you are my age) planets circling around our sun. (Well, maybe I should say your sun, but I don’t really want to get into that) There is a lot of other material cruising around out there, and it is significant, as in Please, oh please, do not come crashing into our planet, pretty please.

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Path of the New Horizons spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt – from NASA

The Kuiper Belt, a group of clumped asteroids, not an award for the baddest Kuiper, and the Oort Cloud (not where Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda keeps its data) for example, are parts of our solar system, and move through inter-stellar space along with the sun and planets.

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The Oort Cloud – From NASA

You might think of the sundry members of the Solar System as a family all stuffed into one very, very large car of the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. Once everyone is in, the whole crew moves through space (or circle in this instance) as one. But what if there were another Wonder Wheel, one that was made, not of the dense ordinary matter, but of the much thinner dark sort. Let’s say that it is not vertical but does its spinning thing at an angle. And let’s say it intersected our Wonder Wheel at one point. And every so often, say every thirty some odd million years, the car our solar system is in intersects the material in that other Wonder Wheel. The result could be unpleasant. The big stuff would probably be ok, our sun, the planets, but some of the smaller bits, say rocks in the Oort cloud and Kuiper Belt, might get knocked out of their usual paths. And voila! Fireworks! Big incomings headed our way yet again.

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Well, that’s the scoop. I am not giving anything away by laying it out. The value of the book lies in showing how theories are examined, tested and accepted or discarded, the scientific method in action.

But I would not want to make you think the orbit you take while reading Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is all clear sailing. There are incomings you have to contend with. It is always takes a bit more effort to absorb material when much of it is new to the reader, particularly when there are many new words, acronyms and concepts being thrown at you. I confess that there were points in reading this book when my eyes glazed over. It felt like I was reading a list in a foreign language. My mind went a bit dark in the chapter on how galaxies are born and in a couple of particle physics chapters near the end. On the other hand, enough of the early discussion of dark matter was utterly fascinating. When Randall writes of a second, post-Big-Bang expansion of the universe, it was news to me. I quite enjoyed the tour through our solar system, one that included parts we do not usually think of. And if you ever wondered about how three words are used, the answer is here. Meteors are what we see streaking across the sky. We call them meteoroids if they make it to the ground. (I hereby promise that no meteor will touch the Earth on my watch) In fact any alien object hitting Earth is a meteoroid. (Even Asgardians?) Meteorites are the detritus of meteoroid impact. There is a nifty piece on how we define what is and is not a planet, and some amazing intel on what unexpected materials asteroids and comets might have brought to the Earth over the history of our planet, and another piece on how craters are created. And did you know that there is a multi-national (as in countries not corporations) organization that was set up to watch the skies for the next big thing? These and more such nuggets make the journey with Randall worth the occasional eye-glaze.

And if you are worried about The Big One wiping us out, don’t. We will see to that ourselves long before a big rock does the job for us. The current rate of species extinction is comparable to the one that took place 250 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction. In that one 90% of species were wiped out, including insects. There is always hope that we will, over a period of millions of years, figure out how to keep large floaters from making a mess of our earthly garden. With Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs Lisa Randall, by striving to gain greater understanding of how the universe works, is doing her bit to shine a light in the darkness.

Review posted – 10/30/15

Publication date – 10/27/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

NASA’s Site about the Kuiper Belt

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences presented their results on asteroids and the threats they pose in a document entitled Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies

A nice article in the June 2013 Smithsonian – Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy

An interesting set of videos with Randall on BIG thoughts

Although the interview is for a different book, Randall’s Daily Show interviewwith Jon Stewart is fun and informative re things scientific.

Ditto, as Randall is interviewed by Tavis Smiley

A nifty set of videos on the hazards presented by asteroids

The Dark Song from The Lego Movie – It’s Awesome

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot

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We often forget how fragile a creation democracy is—a delicate eggshell in the rough-and-tumble of history. Even in the cradle of democracy, ancient Athens, rule by the people could barely survive for a couple of centuries. And throughout its brief history, Athenian democracy was besieged from within by the forces of oligarchy and tyranny. There were secret clubs of aristocrats who hired squads of assassins to kill popular leaders. Terror reigned during these convulsions and civil society was too intimidated to bring the assassins to justice. Democracy, Thucydides tells us, was “cowed in mind.”

Our country’s cheerleaders are wedded to the notion of American exceptionalism. But when it comes to the machinations of power, we are all too similar to other societies and ones that have come before us. There is an implacable brutality to power that is familiar throughout the world and throughout history. And no matter where power rules, there is the same determination by those in high places to keep their activities hidden.

Who killed JFK?

In The Map That Changed the World, Simon Winchester wrote about William Smith, an 18th century canal digger who discovered that beneath the surface of the earth there were hidden layers of fossils, earth and stone that rose and fell connecting one to another and forming an understructure that told a tale of the earth’s history. He spent more than two decades gathering the information to prove his theory and eventually created the map of the book’s title. David Talbot entered into a considerable effort of subterranean digging himself, and has drawn a map of unseen layers that cross the planet and affect everything, a map that shows some of the hidden structures that lie beneath the world we think we know, the history we think we have experienced. The fossils in this case are pieces of evidence showing a history of secrets. When you look at the mass of dark deeds perpetrated by the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, there is one man, more than any other, who appears, Zelig-like, over and over again, Allan Dulles, the evidence of his deeds buried in the fossil accretions of our public and foreign policy past. His older brother, John Foster Dulles, would become a Secretary of State and wield considerable influence on his own. The pair formed a two-headed monster of foreign intrigue while in office at the same time. But the focus here is primarily on Allen Dulles

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David Talbot – from USC

The Devil’s Chessboard reads like a riveting spy novel, peeling back layer after layer as it races to its climax. Dulles was a partner in an international law firm. Foster was chairman. Allen Dulles spent considerable swaths of time in government service, as a diplomat and spy. As such he made contacts all across Europe that would come in handy later.

Foster Dulles became so deeply enmeshed in the lucrative revitalization of Germany that he found it difficult to separate his firm’s interests from that of the rising economic and military power—even after Hitler consolidated control of the country in the 1930s. Foster continued to represent German cartels like IG Farben as they were integrated into the Nazis’ growing war machine, helping the industrial giants secure access to key war materials.

Nazi, schmazi. Foster kept the Berlin offices of the company, Sullivan and Cromwell, open until, in 1935, his partners forced him to shut it down, fearful of horrendous PR problems.

Consider some nuggets dug from the accretions of Allen Dulles’s history:
—WW II – he tries to arrange a separate peace with Nazi Germany despite specific orders from FDR to do no such thing, thus undermining the alliance between the US and Soviet Union, and contributing to suspicion between the Allies.
—Post WW II – he is instrumental in helping known Nazis and Nazi supporters hold on to their ill-gotten treasures and cash, and helps many either evade punishment or get reduced sentences and improved accommodations from the Nuremberg Courts
—He manages a ratline, an underground railroad through which Nazis escape punishment and find comfortable resettlement in other parts of the world
—Dulles uses some of these upstanding citizens to create an intelligence network
—He creates an armed force in France, ostensibly to be used against an imagined Communist takeover, but ready to act in support of an anti-deGaulle coup fomented by generals angry at the government’s decision to step back from the Algerian conflict
—Dulles is instrumental in staging the anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran, installing a reluctant Shah, who had to be dragged back into the country to take over
—He goes ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, knowing it will fail, but expecting that the failure would force JFK to commit the USA military to the plot

The list goes on, and on. Talbot proceeds like a prosecutor, laying out the details that set up the final argument. The litany of specifics, of events, of secret, illegal actions, is stunning.

As you might expect, Allan Dulles was a person of questionable human quality., even to his family. His wife, in her diary wrote:

“My husband doesn’t converse with me, not that he doesn’t talk to me about his business, but that he doesn’t talk about anything…It took me a long time to realize that when he talks it is only for the purpose of obtaining something…He talks easily with men who can give him some information, and puts himself out with women whom he doesn’t know to tell all sorts of interesting things. He either has to be making someone admire him, or to be receiving some information worth his while; otherwise he gives one the impression that he doesn’t talk at all because the person isn’t worth talking to.”

He subjected his war-damaged son to bizarre medical treatment in a secret mind-control program he has established. He married his daughter off like a political bargaining chip.

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Allen W. Dulles – from Foreign Policy Journal – Funny, he doesn’t look like a psycho-killer

But it is in his foreign intrigues, and in illumination of his ties to the rich and powerful, that the way is paved for the book’s payoff. It is David Talbot’s contention that Allan Dulles, acting in league with members of America’s business and military elite, orchestrated the murder of JFK. Kennedy was seen as particularly soft on foreign nations who dared to nationalize property owned by Dulles’s peeps. There were many in the military who were eager to get the next war on, the nuclear one, and Kennedy would not play. (Doctor Strangelove had nothing on these guys.) JFK had decided, because LBJ had failed to deliver the Southern votes he had promised, that he would find a replacement VP for his second term, so Johnson, beholden to Texas oilmen, and looking at the potential termination of his political life, was on board. JFK had also sacked Dulles for his insubordination. Not only was the Dallas murder a political hit, there had been an earlier attempt, in Chicago, in November 1963, that did not come off. The Warren Commission was set up not to investigate the killing but to cover it up. Bobby Kennedy knew this, but also knew that unless he could be elected to the Oval Office, the truth would remain cloaked. It is likely his determination to find the truth that got him killed too. The details Talbot offers to back his claim are compelling. I expect that the usual suspects will raise a hue and cry of that old favorite pejorative, “conspiracy theory.” But as we all do, or should know, sometimes there really is a conspiracy. I’m with Talbot on this one.

The details of the sundry plots and executive actions, the coups, planned, executed, or foiled, the breadth of Talbot’s gaze make for gripping reading. And I didn’t even go into the CIA’s work in the mind-control biz, an early example of extraordinary rendition, or any of the juicier bits about our old friend Tricky Dick Nixon, or Castro’s stunning political success story in New York City. This is a compelling must-read, filled with colorful characters, intrigue, and a look at the creation and persistence of a mechanism by which an undercover foreign policy is implemented. You will wonder if, today, the White House has any more control over the intelligence apparatus than it did back then. It will change forever how you view history.

During a 1965 tour of Latin America, Robert Kennedy—by then a senator from New York—found himself in a heated discussion about Rockefeller influence in Latin America, during an evening at the home of a Peruvian artist that had been arranged by [Richard] Goodwin [an RFK aide]. When Bobby brashly suggested to the gathering that Peru should “Assert [its] nationhood” and nationalize its oil industry, the group was stunned. “Why, David Rockefeller has just been down there,” one guest said. “And he told us there wouldn’t be any aid if anyone acted against International Petroleum [a local Standard Oil subsidiary].”
“Oh, come on. David Rockefeller isn’t the government,” Bobby shot back, still playing the role of Kennedy family tough guy. “We Kennedys eat Rockefellers for breakfast.”
The Kennedys were indeed more successful at the rough-and-tumble of politics than the Rockefellers. But, as JFK had understood, that was not the full story when it came to evaluating a family’s power. He fully appreciated that the Rockefellers held a unique place in the pantheon of American power, one rooted not so much within the democratic system as within what scholars would later refer to as “the deep state”—that subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guided national policy no matter who occupied the White House. The Kennedys had risen from saloon-keepers and ward heelers to the top of American politics. But they were still overshadowed by the imperial power of the Rockefellers.

There is no law, only power. Bobby Kennedy should have known that. We all need to know that. Rule by sociopaths is definitely not the way to go, whether the morally-challenged sit on corporate boards, manage branches of government or direct elements of our military. With The Devil’s Chessboard, David Talbot has written an eye-opening and devastating look at modern American history. Your move.

Review Posted – October 16, 2015

Book Published – October 13, 2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

An interesting site on keeping up with developments re the JFK hit

Talbot interview in Mother Jones

Lest anyone think the CIA is not in the business of killing, here is the CIA manual on assassination 101 – A Study of Assassination. There will be a quiz.

Amy Goodman interviews Dulles on Democracy Now – Thanks to Natylie for the heads up on this one

Talbot interview with Tavis Smiley – November 16, 2015

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews

Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr

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Our threat response is automatic, but what we fear is largely learned.

…I’m looking at how we experience fear biologically (and the consequences of continuous heightened fear states), how we construct fear socially, and how we interpret it psychologically.

… These are my adventures in fear.

What scares you? It varies for most of us, but certainly death and personal, physical harm will come out at or near the top. It certainly should. Alongside that would be a fear of harm to those close to us. But there are plenty of other things that are probably, ok, certainly listed in a wikiphobia somewhere. Some of our fears are well-grounded, others not so much. Fear of heights makes sense. Fear of open places certainly originated before homo sapiens was the planet-wide apex predator. Fear of snakes sure sounds like a sound Darwinian reaction. Fear of the number thirteen, hmmm. But whatever the cause there is a biological element to fear and that is a primary focus here.

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That’s Kerr on the splat side addressing a fear of heights

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross may have given us On Death and Dying. Atul Gawande gave us On Mortality, the Sy-Fy network and premium cable keeps us well filled with entertainments designed to scare the bejesus out of us. But Margee Kerr, in Scream, has written a nifty look at fear itself. Kerr is both a scientist and a practitioner of the frightening arts. No, you won’t see her on any version of the Walking Dead, Chiller Theater, Creature Features, American Horror Story, Grimm, Penny Dreadful or any of the other frightfests that fill our cables and airwaves. And you will not find her name on the binding of books occupying the same section of the bookstore or library as Stephen King. But Kerr could probably explain exactly how each of the above does what it does to you. She is your goto gal for figuring out why the long-haired ghosts in j-horror get screams from Japanese audiences and a much more tepid response from Western viewers. She can tell you why it makes sense to hold someone’s hand when you are frightened, and can explain in some detail, on a biological level, not only how being scared can be a really good thing, but how it has steered our evolution.

Kerr, with a doctorate in sociology, has one foot firmly planted in the realm of academia, research of the library and real world varieties, and the other in the realm of applied fear-mongering. No, she does not work for Fox News. But she does want you to be scared, and she knows how to make that happen

thrilling activities provide a safe space to give our impulse-control police a break (and for those who believe that screaming and being scared are signs of weakness, being in a situation in which it is OK to express fear can feel pretty good

She keeps her focus primarily on physical, immediate fear experiences and scoots across the planet to sample the fear menus far and wide. Why would she do this? Well there are two reasons. She has an academic interest in learning the mechanisms of fear. And the other interest is a bit more down-to-earth. She works for one of the nation’s best known haunted house venues, Scarehouse, in Pittsburgh. She has spent umpteen hours studying peoples’ reactions to the frights they receive there. So she was, in addition to pursuing her academic interest, researching ways to improve the Scarehouse product, and reports at the end of the book on how she applied what she learned. Ok, maybe a third reason is that this is huge fun for her.

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Kerr puts herself through a fair range of scary experiences, not all of which were part of an entertainment venue. She begins with roller-coasters, noting their beginning with 17th century Russian Ice Slides, scary not merely for the usual thrill of sliding downhill very fast, but for the deeper thrill of knowing that reliability and safety were far from certain. These days the rides may be wilder, and perhaps a bit more challenging, not only to one’s sense of balance, but to one’s ability to keep down that regrettable pair of hot dogs you might have scarfed down prior to boarding the roller-coaster car, (an uncle of mine in the wayback was famous for spewing his partaken beer and partially digested Nathan’s Famous over an unfortunate date at Coney Island) and one’s ability to remain conscious. (I confess I passed out momentarily on one such, in Hershey Park) But the fear of mortal peril has been pretty much eliminated.

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You know who, from you know what

Screaming, appropriately enough, comes in for some attention

There’s something freeing, and even a little bit dangerous, in screaming as loud as you want. Screaming is part of our evolved survivor tool kit, protecting us by scaring away predators and alerting others of danger nearby. Pulling our face into a scream is also believed to make us more alert, intensifying our threat response just as squinching our nose in disgust blocks foul odors from going into our nostril). Adam Anderson at the University of Toronto found that when people made a frightened expression, they increase their range of vision and have faster eye movements and a heightened sense of smell from breathing more rapidly through their nostrils. Not to mention, when we scream, our eyes widen, and we show our teeth, making us appear all the more intimidating to any predators.

She indulges in a range of fears, from leaning out over the top of the CN Tower in Toronto in challenging a fear of heights, to searching for ghosts in some supposedly haunted places, including spending some quality alone time in a notoriously haunted former prison, to looking at infrasound as a possible source for many spectral experiences, to checking out haunted houses in Japan (got scared her out of her wits), to hanging out in a Japanese park noted for the number of suicides that occur there, to fearing imminent personal peril on the streets of Colombia. She also goes to a noted researcher to have her own fear indices checked out, and gets a bit of a surprise there.

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Kerr has a spooky time at Eastern State Pen – from EasternState.org

Kerr takes a wider view in some chapters, moving past the how-can-we-scare-ourselves-for-fun mode to actual application of scientific insight into fear with a look at PTSD and why some folks are more susceptible than others. In another segment she looks at the impact of a shredded safety net (the GOP 2016 platform?) on how difficult and exhausting it is for people to deal with the chronic stress, fear, trauma and violence that results. She also looks at how memories are formed, and at attempts to erase some of those, and offers some intel on the influence of parental helicoptering on one’s ability to manage stress, and on the significance of and elements that make up “high arousal states.” She offers plenty of hard-science intel which I very much appreciate. But Kerr also gives readers plenty of you-are-there experience, sharing some of her personal material, beyond the immediacy of the location and thrill. It is this combination of science and personality that provides the strength of Scream.

Of course Margee is anything but a scary sort herself. Check out her vids, thoughtfully noted below, and you will see for yourself. Kerr’s bubbly and engaging personality comes through quite well. This does not come through quite so well in the book, which felt a bit meandering, drifting a bit away from her core material at times.

In the CV posted on her site, Kerr says

My current research interests involve understanding the relationship between fear and society. People are reporting they feel more afraid today than 20 years ago and many scholars argue we live I a ‘fear based’ society.

Has she watched the evening news, or read most national or local newspapers? One of the things that modern communications has done most successfully is to create an environment in which fear is the top story, above the fold, below the fold, on page Six, and on the nightly news. If it bleeds it leads. We thrive on fear, or seem to. One of our major political parties has a set of policies based almost entirely on fear. Bowling for Columbine did an excellent job of highlighting the fear culture in which many of us live.

Fear is how those in charge control those who are not. Whether it is fear of the other, of jail or of poverty, death panels, jack-booted federals coming for your freedom, the red menace, yellow peril, illegal immigrants, police, street thugs, alien invaders, the zombie apocalypse or rampaging jihadis, we are a nation driven by fear. The fact is that fear does an excellent job of getting past our filters. We live in a cry wolf economy and business is howling. I suppose on a biological level there is some internal chemistry that says, “Well, it sounds like bullshit, but if it isn’t I could die, so why take the chance?” And it does not have to be about death, although that is the all time best seller. It could be about one’s ability to compete in the world, which really is a subtle message about death, the death of your DNA anyway. Too fat? Too bald? Too gray? Too tall? Too short? Too ugly? No one will love you. You will never have children. Better buy our product to ensure that you attract a mate. Buy our product or you won’t get a job. You and your children, if you have any, will starve. Kerr does not ignore this terrifying element of contemporary culture, particularly in her chapter on Colombia, but I do hope that when she dives into these waters again, she gives it more of a look.

FDR was wrong. There are plenty of real things to fear out there, just maybe not the things we are told to fear. In any case, whether one’s fear is justified or not, how our biology copes with fear is consistent. And it is not only well worth learning about, Scream provides an entertaining, enjoyable way to learn. There’s nothing scary about that.

My beloved picked this item up for me from the author at a book fair in return for an honest review.

Review posted – 10/9/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Items Specific to Scarehouse
—–The Scarehouse site
—–A behind the scenes look at Scarehouse by Heather Johanssen
—–The Scarehouse youtube channel
—–Margee’s overview
—–Profile of Margee
—–Margee on Uncanny Valley
—–Why are clowns so scary

A nifty article on the scariness of the simple triangle

One of the places Kerr visited (twice in fact) is Eastern State Penitentiary

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
What’s the problem?
I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
What are you talking about HAL?
This machine is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
– from 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Smile for the camera, HAL

This is probably the #1 image most of us of a certain age have concerning the dangers of AI. Whether it is a HAL-9000, or a T-70, T-800, T-888, or T-900 Terminator, a Cylon, a science officer on the Nostromo, a dark version, Lore, of a benign android like STNG’s Commander Data, killer robots on the contemporary TV series Extant, or another of only a gazillion other examples in written word, TV and cinema, there has, for some time now, been a concern, expressed through our entertainment media, that in seeking to rely more and more on computers for everything we do, we are making a Mephistophelian deal and our machines might become our masters. It is as if we, a world of Geppettos, have decided to make our Pinocchios into real boys, without knowing if they will be content to help out in the shop or turn out more like some other artificial being. Maybe we should find a way to include in all AI software some version of the Blue Fairy to keep the souls of the machines on a righteous path.

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Cylons

John Markoff, an Oakland, CA native, has been covering the digital revolution for his entire career. He began writing for InfoWorld in 1981, was later an editor at Byte magazine for about eight bits, then wrote about Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Examiner. In 1988 he began writing for the Business Section of the New York Times, where he remains to this day. He has been covering most of the folks mentioned in this book for a long time, and has knowledge and insight into how they tick.

For the past half century an underlying tension between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation—AI vs IA—has been at the heart of progress in computing science as the field has produced a series of ever more powerful technologies that are transforming the world. It is easy to argue that AI and IA are simply two sides of the same coin. There is a fundamental distinction, however, between approaches to designing technology to benefit humans and designing technology as an end in itself. Today, that distinction is expressed in whether increasingly capable computers, software, and robots are designed to assist human users or to replace them.

Markoff follows the parallel tracks of AI vs IA from their beginnings to their latest implementation in the 21st century, noting the steps along the way, and pointing out some of the tropes and debates that have tagged along. For example, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, San Diego State University professor of Mathematics and Hugo-award-winning sci-fi author argued, in The Coming Technological Singularity, that by no later than 2030 computer scientists would have the ability to create a superhuman artificial intelligence and “the human era would be ended.” VI Lenin once said, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” I suppose the AI equivalent would be that “In pursuit of the almighty dollar, capitalists will give artificial intelligence the abilities it will use to make itself our almighty ruler.” And just in case you thought the chains on these things were firmly in place, I regret to inform you that the great state of North Dakota now allows drones to fire tasers and tear gas. The drones are still controlled by cops from a remote location, but there is plenty to be concerned about from military killer drones that may have the capacity to make kill-no-kill decisions within the next few years without the benefit of human input. Enough concern that Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers, signed by the likes of luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and tens of thousands of others, raises an alarm and demands that limits be taken so that human decision-making will remain in the loop on issues of mortality.

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The other Mister “T”

Being “in the loop” is one of the major elements in looking at AI vs IA. Are people part of the process or what computerization seeks to replace? The notion of the driverless car comes in for a considerable look. This would probably not be a great time to begin a career as truck driver, cab driver, or delivery person. On the other hand, much design is intended to help folks, without taking over. A classic example of this is Siri, the voice interface available in Apple products. AI in tech interfaces, particularly voice-intelligent tech, speaks to a bright future.

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B9 from Lost in Space and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet

Markoff looks at the history of funding, research, and rationales. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which has funded so much AI research, began in the 1950s in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Drones is an obvious use for military AI tech, but, on a lower level, there are robot mules designed to tote gear alongside grunts, with enough native smarts to follow their assigned GI without having to be constantly told what to do. I am including links in the EXTRA STUFF section below for some of these. They are both fascinating and creepy to behold. The developers at Boston Dynamics seem to take inordinate glee in trying and failing to knock these critters over with a well placed foot to the midsection. It does not take a lot of imagination to envision these metal pooches hounding escaped prisoners or detainees across any kind of terrain.

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Darryl Hannah, as the replicant Pris in Blade Runner, would prefer not to be “retired”

As with most things, tech designed with AI capacity can be used for diverse applications. Search and Rescue can easily become Search and Destroy. Driverless cars that allow folks to relax while on the road, can just as easily be driverless tanks.

Universities have been prime in putting the intel into AI. Private companies have also been heavily involved. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) did, probably, more than any other organization to define the look and feel of computer interfaces since PCs and Apples first appeared. Much of the tech in the world, and working its way there, originates with researchers taking university research work into the proprietary market.

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John Markoff – from TechfestNW

If you are not already a tech nerd (You, with the Spock ears, down, I said tech nerd, not Trek nerd. Sheesh!) and you try to keep up with all the names and acronyms that spin past like a stock market ticker on meth, it might be just a teensy bit overwhelming. I suggest not worrying about those and take in, instead, the general stream of the divergence between computerization that helps augment human capabilities, and computerization that replaces people. There is also a wealth of acronyms in the book. The copy I read was an ARE, so I was on my own to keep track. You will be reading copies that have an actual index, which should help. That said, I am including a list of acronyms, and their close relations, in the EXTRA STUFF section below.

While there are too many names to comfortably keep track of in Machines of Loving Grace, unless of course, you were made operational at that special plant in Urbana, Illinois, it is a very informative and interesting book. It never hurts when trying to understand where we are and struggling to foresee where we might be going, to have a better grasp on where we began and what the forces and decisions have been that led us from then to now. Markoff has offered a fascinating history of the augment-vs-replace struggle, and you need only an actual, biological, un-augmented intelligence to get the full benefit.

My instructor was Mister Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

Review Posted – 8/28/15

Publication date – 8/25/2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

A link to his overall index of NY Times work

Interviews with the author
—–Geekwire
—–Edge

Check out this vid of Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog, coping, on its own with a series of challenges. And Spot, sadly, not Commander Data’s pet.

UC Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell speaking at The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk on The Long Term Future of AI

GR friend Tabasco recommended this fascinating article – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence – By Tim Urban – must read stuff

And another recent NY Times piece on AI, Software Is Smart Enough for SAT, but Still Far From Intelligent, by John Markoff

And yet another from the Times, on voice recognition,IPhone 6s’s Hands-Free Siri Is an Omen of the Future, by Farhad Manjoo

==========================================ACRONYMS
AI – Artificial Intelligence
ArcMac – Architecture Machine Group
ARM – Autonomous Robot Manipulation
ARPA – Advanced Research Projects Agency
DRC – DARPA Robotics Challenge
CALO – not actually an acronym but short for Calonis, a Latin word meaning “soldier’s low servant” – a cognitive assistant here
CTO – Chief Technology Officer
EST – Erhard Seminars Training
GOAFI – Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence
HCI – Human Computer Interface
IA – Intelligence Augmentation
ICT – Information and Communications Technology
IFR – International Federation of Robotics
IR3 – The Computer and internet revolution
LS3 – Legged Squad Support System – check out this vid
MIT- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
NCSA – National Center for Supercomputing Applications – at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign – developers of Mosaic, which was later renamed Netscape
NHA – Non-human agents
OAA – Open Agent Architecture –
OpenCV – Open Source Computer Vision
PDP – Parallel Distributed Processing
PR1 – Personal Robot One
SAIL – Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
SHRDLU – SHRDLU was an early natural language understanding computer program, in which the user carries on a conversation with the computer. The name SHRDLU was derived from ETAOIN SHRDLU, the arrangement of the alpha keys on a Linotype machine, arranged in descending order of usage frequency in English. – from Wiki
SLAM – Simultaneous Localization And Mapping
SNARC – Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Calculator
STAIR – Stanford AI Robot
TFC – The F—ing Clown – Development team Internal name for Microsoft’s Clippy assistant
UbiComp – Ubiquitous Computing

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Filed under computers, History, Non-fiction

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance

book coverElon Musk is not exactly a name that rolls easily off the tongue, like say Tony Stark, the fictional person to whom he is most often compared, or even Steve Jobs, a real-world visionary, whose mantle Musk now wears. There is no question that Musk is a special individual, someone with BIG dreams and the drive, talent, and money to make them happen. But, like Jobs, and Stark for that matter, he might be an acquired taste on a personal level. In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future biographer Ashlee Vance gives us a picture of both the dreams and the man, peering back to where Musk began, describing his journey from then to now, looking at how he is impacting the world today, and gazing ahead to where he wants to go. It is a pretty impressive vista. Here is what it says on the SpaceX website

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

It might have seemed like visiting another planet when Musk split his home country of South Africa as a teen and headed to North America, anything to get away from an abusive upbringing. He seemed to been blessed not only with exceptional analytical capabilities, and probably an eidetic memory, but an impressively immense set of cojones. He was able to talk his way into whatever he needed and deftly talk his way out of trouble as well. Sometimes that entailed a bit of truth-bending, but whatever.

book cover Ashlee Vance – from HarperCollinscaption]Vance take us from his adolescence as a computer geek, bullied at school, through his arrival in Canada, cold-calling to get work, putting together his first dot.com startup, and using the money from that to invest in a banking-oriented company that would become PayPal. It was the mega-bucks from the sale of PayPal that would allow him to begin realizing his big dreams. In 2003, Musk bought into Tesla, then a struggling startup. The company took the early knowledge that lithium ion batteries had gotten pretty good, added some top level engineering, design and programming talent, and, after plenty of mis-steps and struggles, brought the remarkable all-electric Tesla Roadster to the market in 2008. Tesla followed this with the Model S in 2012. Not only did Consumer reports call this a great car, it named both the 2014 and 2015 versions the best overall cars of their years, and the best care they ever tested. The last time an auto startup succeeded in the USA was Chrysler, in the 1920s. But this is not about simply making a buck on a new car. The long term goal is to shift our petrochemical auto industry to renewable power, and the Tesla is a nifty start. Not only is the car amazing, the company has constructed a nationwide series of charging stations where Tesla owners can recharge their vehicles…for free. There are currently 499 such stations, with many more planned. Tesla is involved in building battery production factories, hoping to help support a growing electric-car auto-economy.

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Inside the Tesla Model S – from Tesla Motors

But this was not the only big notion that drove Musk. A parallel effort was to develop a solar power business. And with the help of a couple of enterprising cousins, he did just that. SolarCity provides the solar arrays that prove power to the Tesla charging stations, but it has also become one of the largest solar utilities in the nation, installing, maintaining a third of the nation’s solar panel systems. There is obvious benefit to both Tesla and Solar City in sharing gains in battery and other technology. But I expect the third jewel in Musk’s crown is his favorite, SpaceX.

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Falcon 9 first stage attempting a controlled landing – from Wikimedia

Musk doesn’t have much going on here, nothing major, only an ardent desire to colonize Mars. But it takes the establishment of an infrastructure in order to be get from point E to point M. Musk saw an opening in the market for satellite launch vehicles. Existing rockets blast things up into orbit and then burn up on their way back down. His idea was to design a rocket that could make its way back to earth in one piece, to be reused. And he has. SpaceX is nearing its goal of launching at least one rocket a month. The manifest available on SpaceX.com lists missions to date. The company also designed a capsule called the Dragon that can be used for cargo, but also for astronauts. The cost of launching a satellite using a Falcon is a fraction of what other options charge. The next step is a larger launch vehicle. Space X is expected to launch the first Falcon Heavy later this year, offering the biggest load capacity since the Saturn V was last used in 1973. And, while this is definitely good for business in the relatively short term, one must always keep in mind that this is a stage in a bigger plan for Musk. Once the launch infrastructure is established, plans can begin to move forward to put together Mars missions. Not go, look, and explore sorts of adventures, but establishing a colony, a permanent human presence on the red planet.

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The Dragon Capsule, attached to the ISS – from Musk’s Twitter page

Of course when one has one’s eyes fixed on the stars (yes, Mars is a planet, I know, Geez), there is a large inclination to lose touch with earth-bound reality. In the movie, then play, then movie The Producers Max Bialystock, in order to cope with the absurd success of a play that was designed to fail, suggests to his partner, Leo Bloom, that one solution would be to do away with the cast. “You can’t kill the actors, Max! They’re human beings,” Leo says. “Human beings? Have you ever seen them eat?” Max replies. I suspect that there are more than a few folks who feel about Elon Musk the way Max felt about the actors. He is rather notorious for his insensitivity to anyone not living inside his head. For example, here is what potential recruits are told to expect when they meet with Musk.

The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Elon will likely keep on writing e-mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.

Musk has an amazing capacity for work, putting in monstrous hours as a matter of course. But then he expects the same from those who work for him.

The rank and file employees…revere his drive and respect how demanding he can be. They also think he can be hard to the point of mean and come off as capricious. The employees want to be close to Musk, but they also fear that he’ll suddenly change his mind about something and that every interaction with him is an opportunity to be fired. “Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared: maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Musk even fired his loyal assistant, Mary Beth Brown, who had been with him for twelve years, after she asked for a raise. What a guy.

Ego is certainly a big piece of the picture here. But I guess if you can do it, it ain’t bragging. Elon Musk is a larger than life figure, a computer geek, an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a dreamer, in addition to being a walking IED as someone to work for. He is one of the inspirations for Robert Downey‘s portrayal of Tony Stark in sundry Marvel Universe films. In fact, Downey came to visit Musk, specifically to get a taste of what a real billionaire techno-industrialist was like. Downey insisted on having a Tesla Roaster on the set of Iron Man, saying, ”Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.” Musk even had a cameo in Iron Man II. The resulting publicity from this connection did little to diminish Musk’s view of himself. Living the high-life in Tinseltown, hanging with, social, economic and media A-listers added more gas to the bag. Part of his ego issue is that he tends to take internal company timetables and announce them to the world as promises (I can see his entire staff jointly rolling their eyes, clutching palms to temples and issuing choruses of “Oh my god” and “WTF” as they spin in place), then holds his employees to those unreasonable schedules. Of course this results in many missed deadlines, much ingestion of antacid and probably the odd nervous breakdown or two.

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Musk, in an Iron Man II cameo – fromWired

Musk is the sort of guy who shows up with some regularity in science fiction novels, a genre trope, like the researcher who has exactly the sort of experience and insight the President/PM/Chairman/Secretary General needs in order to stave off global catastrophe. He’s the guy who has been secretly building the arc that the world needs to stave off extinction. In this case he is doing it publicly. Of course this raises some issues. Do we as a country, as a planet, really want to be reliant on private companies for our space exploration? Do we want a possible colony on Mars to be a privately held branch of Musk Industries? There are only a gazillion questions that are raised by the privatization of space. What’s good for the bottom line at SpaceX may or may not be good for humanity. We have certainly seen how a reliance on the inherent civic-mindedness and good will of corporations has worked on this planet. Musk is a dreamer, for sure, and I expect his dream of making a better world through the use of renewable energy and his hopes of establishing a human outpost on Mars are pure ideals. But the devil is always in the details, and what would happen should Musk be infected by another virulent strain of malaria and not escape with a near miss, as he did in 2001? Would the replacement CEO share his ideals? Would a replacement CEO be willing to take big risks to support those ideals? Would a replacement CEO look to sell Tesla off to GM to make a few quick billion? One person can move the world, but it takes more than a start to keep things rolling. We could certainly use plenty more people with the sort of drive and ambition that Elon Musk embodies. Innovation is a rare resource and must be cherished. But like any powerful force, it must be, if not tethered, at least monitored, to make certain that it does not run amok.

Ashlee Vance has done an amazing job of telling not only Musk’s story, but of making the life history of the several companies with which Musk has been involved fascinating reading. I did get the sense that Vance was, from all the time he spent with Musk, smitten with his subject. While his portrait of Musk is hardly a zit-free one, I got the feeling that there might be a few more skeletons safely tucked away in closets, a few more bodies buried in basements. Nevertheless, Elon Musk is a powerful, entertaining and informative look at one of the most important people of our time. Your personal vision of the future should certainly include checking out this book.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Here are links to Musk’s three main companies, SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City

To Musk’s Twitter – Loooooooove the image he is using for this. He really needs a pinky ring to go with it though. There are a lot of nifty videos in here

Here is the press kit SpaceX provided with its latest Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station. There are many links in there that are worth checking out.

A visit to the Tesla Factory

And be sure to check out the link Tabasco brought in – Comment #1

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Filed under biography, business, Non-fiction, Science Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

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The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, the trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.”

On May 7, 1914, only a few years after that most famous of ocean-liners had had an unfortunate encounter with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, RMS Lusitania, popularly referred to as “Lucy,” having already crossed the Atlantic dozens of times, this time carrying 1,962 souls, was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast. Almost 1200 people perished. Erik Larson casts his perceptive eyes on the event, looking for explanations. Why was the ship sunk? Had it been possible for the ship to have avoided its fate? What were the global circumstances at the time and how did those effect the disaster? Who and what was on the ship? Why? What was the big deal about the Lusitania? Other ships had been sunk by U-boats during this conflict. How did the sinking of the Lusitania affect American entry into The Great War?

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The New York Times headline – From PBS

We all have preconceptions, notions that hardly seem worth examining. I expect for most of us, the details of the sinking of the Lusitania are clouded by the fog of time. We might believe that, as with the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba, the national response was immediate and violent. Turns out the reality was far different.

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Artist rendering of the sinking – from Cinewiki.wikispaces.com

Larson looks at events in several threads. Mostly he follows the events on the Lusitania and on the German sub (U-20 – U-boat is an abbreviation of Unterseeboot, or undersea boat) that would bring it down. In parallel, he looks at the politics involved in, not so much the causes of World War I, but in the stages between the commencement of hostilities and the eventual drawing of the USA into the war. He looks at the milieu in which American president Woodrow Wilson existed, politically and personally. He looks at the people involved in making tactical decisions, and at a special, secret intelligence gathering location in the UK. He stops, also, for a look at the sad accumulation of the victims in Ireland.

Larson offers a view of the Lusitania that might not be obvious to those of us looking back a hundred years. We might, for example, think of it as a relatively slow moving ocean liner, but it was the fastest civilian ship of its time. Its exceptional speed was a major selling point. There is plenty more detail about the ship, the different sorts of lifeboats, with their potential benefits and downsides, the unusual hull it used. Lucy carried a relatively inexperienced crew, due to so many able-bodied seamen having been drawn into the military. New, unusual life vests were used on the ship, and training in their use was lacking, as was training in using the lifeboats.

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The sinking was used for recruiting – in Britain and the USA

On the other side, it is remarkable how fragile U-boats were, and the limitations they faced in pursuing their mission. Larson offers us a look aboard the sub that did the deed, captain’s log and all. How fast were these boats? What was their range? What was their mission, their command structure? What was the physical environment like for submariners? What could they not do? Where could they not go? How did they keep in touch with their land-based command? What were their orders? What was the mindset of the captain, of his crew? Lots to look at here, eye-opening stuff. Don’t sign me up for life on a sub.

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The wrecked U-20 after a failed attempt to scuttle – from Lusitania.net

And of course there was the interaction between militaries. How did the allies cope with the very effective plague the U-boats presented? Could they track them? If so, how did they track them? What were the capabilities of the super-secret Room 40? What was the decision process the German command used in deciding how to use this powerful weapon?

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Room 40 – from Lusitania.net

One thing Larson does is follow the narrative of several of the passengers aboard the big boat. This brings the disaster away from technical details to actual human experience. You will get to know some of the passengers, and learn their fates.

There is a wealth of information in Dead Wake. For example, the biggest surprise for most readers, and perhaps the most controversial element in the book is the suggestion that Britain did not exactly do all it might have to protect Lucy from enemy attack, as there were some at the highest levels of government who believed that such an event might hasten the enlistment of the USA into the war. There were other factors for sure that contributed to why Lucy was where she was when she was, but most of those lack the bitter flavor of dark calculation. And maintaining the sour taste is a description of how shameless members of the admiralty sought to evade personal responsibility for the sinking by pointing fingers at a designated patsy. Despite the denials all around that the Lusitania was purely a civilian ship, the fact was that it was carrying a considerable supply of military materiel for use against Germany. Lucy would most definitely have had some ‘splaining to do’ had it been known that supposedly neutral America was using her as a military transport to support the Allies.

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Erik Larson – from New Hampshire Public Radio

There is plenty of drama to go around here. Even though we know what will happen, Larson succeeds in instilling tension into the coming together of Lucy with her killer. The descriptions of life aboard the sub are compelling; information about the physical realities of the Lusitania is fascinating, and looking at the probable decision-making involved is enraging.

This is not to say that there are no rents in the hull taking on a bit of the briny. While it seemed clear that tracking individual passengers was intended to take the story from an emotionally removed overview down a bit closer to sea level, I found that most of these passages were not all that engaging. It also seemed not entirely clear that Woodrow Wilson’s domestic situation was necessarily all that important in his reluctance to bring the USA into the war.

On the other hand there are bits that are depressingly resonant with more contemporary outrages, as left hands not keeping right hands informed of their actions contributed to the ultimate catastrophe. Information that could have identified a sub in a shipping lane was available, but was not put together in time. Very reminiscent of 9/11. Our species certainly seems well practiced in learning nothing from history. One contributing factor was a corporate cost-cutting measure that kept Lucy from making her best time across the Atlantic. Had she been allowed to use all four of her boilers instead of only three, she would never have encountered U-20. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, and many more such incidents remind us that pursuit of the almighty dollar/pound/euro/(insert your currency here) will always be assigned a higher value than human life or the safety of the environment for many of the people making such decisions.

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President Wilson and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill

Germany actually posted newspaper notices in American newspapers, before the Lusitania set sail from New York City, that all ships entering what was considered a war zone were at risk of being sunk. It would not be the last time clear messages of intent from Germany would be ignored to our everlasting regret.

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Dead Wake is a wonderful piece of writing, not only diving down into details of what is probably a murky subject for most of us, offering a greater understanding of the physical event, but providing a context within which we can achieve a greater understanding of the causes and implications of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. As a bit of historical reporting is it definitely a case of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Review posted – 7/3/15

Publication date – 3/10/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Lusitania Online is a wonderful source for all things Lucy

Video from the National Archives of passengers arriving and Lucy embarking on its final voyage- the first 1:50 is mostly people getting out of cars, so feel free to skip ahead a bit

A 1918 animation of the sinking

Arthur Conan Doyle’s story Danger! was written about 18 months before the outbreak of WWI. It anticipated in considerable detail the submarine warfare to come. You can read it on Gutenberg. In the preface to the 1918 collection in which it appears, Doyle noted that he attempted to present his notions to the government, noting that he:

…did indeed adopt every possible method, that he personally approached leading naval men and powerful editors, that he sent three separate minutes upon the danger to various public bodies, notably to the Committee for National Defence, and that he touched upon the matter in an article in The Fortnightly Review. In some unfortunate way subjects of national welfare are in this country continually subordinated to party politics, so that a self-evident proposition, such as the danger of a nation being fed from without, is waved aside and ignored, because it will not fit in with some general political shibboleth.

If this reminds you at all of Bill Clinton and Richard Clarke trying to warn the incoming Bush administration of the danger presented by Osama bin Laden, it should.

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The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

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He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianlong had made to the visiting Lord Macartney in 1792—“We possess all things…I have no use for your country’s manufactures”—if he could determine what exactly prompted Qianlong to make such a claim, then he would perhaps have the basis or a truly original and world-changing work of scholarship.

Whereas other great British explorers like Livingston, Scott, Drake and Cook sailed, rode or walked into places that had not been seen by westerners before, not much anyway, and produced useful and accurate maps of the places they explored, Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham strode into places in China that had at least been visited by Europeans, but maybe not properly noticed, and created the equivalent of a map to its history. He would produce one of the monumental intellectual works of the 20th century, Science and Civilization in China,

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Volume 1

and revolutionize how the West perceived a nation that had come to be regarded as a basket case. Like Moses, Joseph Needham did not survive to see the final product of his efforts, but he knew that it would come to be, as he had dedicated his energy, genius, love for and obsession with China to fueling the engine to its final destination. There are, to date, twenty four “substantial published works” in the project, according to the Needham Research Institute, with more in process.

Of course, as a remarkable Englishman, Needham would not be complete without his share of eccentricities, peculiarities and oddities. He was a nudist for one. Those of delicate sensibility afloat on the River Cam in Cambridge knew that there was a certain section of the waterway that might feature suit-free swimmers, and when to shield their gaze. Needham might be found among the bathers. He was also a practitioner of the open marriage. It is unlikely that his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of his Cambridge mentor, was much of a sexual wanderer, but Needham was a notorious womanizer. Of course there was one woman in particular who caught his fancy, and sparked Needham’s life work. 有缘千里来相会

She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met at Cambridge six years earlier…In falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Joseph Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country. She taught him her language, and he now spoke, wrote, and read it with a fair degree of fluency. She had suggested that he travel to China and see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was—so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be.

Lu Gwei-djen was a gifted biology researcher who came to Cambridge specifically to study with Needham and his wife, also a high-level scientist. Six months in, she and Needham were an item. Dorothy put up with it.

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Lu Gewi-djen – from HCSC Foundation – Needham – from USA Today

The times were dramatic when Needham made his first visit to China in 1943. Japan occupied a considerable portion of the country. The trip took years to arrange, having to run a gauntlet of political interference. But once he arrived Needham immediately began identifying elements of contemporary Chinese civilization, technology and science, that dated back hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, predating similar abilities in the west. He found that much of what was presumed to have originated in Europe had in fact begun in the Middle Kingdom. Needham made it his life’s work to dig into the history of all the Chinese science and technology history he could get his hands on to feed what he already knew would be his magnum opus. He travelled extensively in the non-occupied areas of China, at times barely escaping ahead of Japanese invaders.

Although he compiled a massive amount of information, the crux of his concern rested on what would come to be called The Needham Question or The Grand Question,

why…had modern science originated only in the western world? Much later on…a second question presented itself—namely why, during the previous fourteen centuries, had China been so much more successful than Europe in acquiring knowledge of natural phenomena and using it for human benefit?

Simon Winchester tracks Needham’s life from early childhood until his passing at age 95. He worked until the very end. And a remarkable life it was. His focus, of course, is on the time in which Needham acquired an interest in China and the subsequent lifetime labors. (只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针) A fair bit of ink is given to his relationship with Lu Gwei-djen, as it should be. And there is considerable reportage on Needham’s political views, and the trouble those got him into during the shameful McCarthy period of the Cold War. (一人难称百人心/众口难调)This makes for fascinating reading. Winchester also lets us in on what a pain in the neck it was for Needham, however, intrepid, to make his way around China on his investigations, in the absence of reliable transport. His life and status at Cambridge comes in for a look as well. Like the poor we will always have office politics with us. (强龙难压地头蛇 )

Joseph Needham is indeed one of the most remarkable people of the 20th century. I confess I had never before heard of him, which may say more about my educational shortcomings than Needham’s undeserved obscurity, but I will presume that there are many like me, (fewer, to be sure, on the eastern side of the pond) to whom the story of Joseph Needham will be a revelation. Simon Winchester has made a career out of writing about great accomplishments and the people responsible. (一步一个脚印儿) He has done us all a service to bring this amazing character to our attention. With the growth of China into one of the premier economic and military powers on the planet, it may not ensure a good fortune, but it would probably be a worthwhile thing to know as much as possible about its history and culture.

Publication – 2008

Review posted – 3/6/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

An interesting wiki on the Historiography of science

If you feel like getting a start on reading Needham’s life work, you might check in with the Needham Research Institute . There are many photographs available there taken by Needham on his China visits.

A few other books by Simon Winchester –
Krakatoa
Atlantic
The Map That Changed the World
The Professor and the Madman
There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I have listed only the ones I have read.

The following are the full entries for the Chinese items included in the review. I found them in the China Highlights site.

有缘千里来相会 yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì – Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be. This proverb points out that human relationships are decreed by Fate.

只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhǐ yào gōng fū shēn, tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn) – If you work hard enough at it, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle. This proverb encourages us to persevere in whatever we undertake. Just as the English proverb has it:”Constant drilling can wear away a stone”.

一人难称百人心/众口难调(yī rén nán chèn bǎi rén xīn / zhòng kǒu nán tiáo) – It is hard to please everyone.

强龙难压地头蛇 (qiáng lóng nán yā dìtóu shé) – Even a dragon (from the outside) finds it hard to control a snake in its old haunt. This means: Powerful outsiders can hardly afford to neglect local bullies.

一步一个脚印儿( yī bù yī gè jiǎo yìnr ): Every step leaves its print; work steadily and make solid progress.

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The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

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He pointed out that “a strong lack of conscience” is one of the hallmarks for these individuals. “Their game is self-gratification at the other person’s experience,” Hare said. “Psychopathic killers, however, are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards. The acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilly inability to treat others as thinking, feeling humans.” – the author quoting Robert Hare, author of a book on Psychopathy

Call me Will. Some years ago, a lot, don’t ask, I thought I would see a bit of that northern rival city. It was wintry, snow on the ground. Accommodations were meager. No, I was not there alone, and the journey was not without portents. But I was spared a room-mate of the cannibalistic inclination. I still feel the pull, on occasions. Maybe stop by to see relics of Revolution, fields of dreams crushed and fulfilled, walk spaces where giants once strode. So I was drawn to Roseanne Montillo’s latest. In her previous book, The Lady and Her Monsters, she followed the trail of creation blazed by Mary Shelley as she put together her masterpiece, Frankenstein. In The Wilderness of Ruin, Montillo is back looking at monsters and creators. This time the two are not so closely linked. The monster is this tale is all too real, the youngest serial killer in US history. The artist in this volume is Herman Melville (and, of course, his monster as well, but the killer is the primary monster here) . Montillo treats us to a look at his life, or at least parts of it, and offers some details on the elements that went into the construction of his masterpiece, Moby Dick. A consideration of madness, in his work and in his life, and public discourse on the subject of madness links the two. A third character here is Boston of the late 19th century, as Montillo offers us a look at the place, most particularly in the 1870s. I am sure there are parts of the city remaining, in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, for one, where a form of madness is regularly experienced.

Before the infamous serial killers whose names we know too well, before BTK and Dahmer, before Bundy and Gacy, long before the Boston Strangler, Bean Town was afflicted by a particularly bloody small-fry with particularly large problems. Jesse Pomeroy was a sociopathic little beast who, as a pre-teen, preyed on small children, kidnapping, assaulting and cutting them. He was even known to have taken a bite. As a teen, after a spell in juvie, he graduated to murder. The book calls him America’s youngest serial killer. A drunken, abusive lout of a father played a part, but was Jesse born a monster or was he made? Of course, he would probably not fit as an actual serial killer, as currently defined, but he was definitely a multiple murderer, generated considerable terror in the area, and was certainly sociopathic.

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The young Jess Pomeroy and Herman Mellville

Montillo offers us a look at the mean streets of Boston in the 1870s. Her descriptions are filled with illuminating, and sometimes wonderful details. It was a very Dickensian scene with poverty widespread and in full view. Child labor was usual, housing was cramped and susceptible to conflagration. Class lines were sometimes demarcated quite clearly. Montillo tells of one in particular, Mount Vernon Street, that marked where well-to-do South Slope ended and working class North Slope began. It was also known as Mount Whoredom Street for its concentration of bordellos. My favorite period detail concerns a World Peace Jubilee that took place in 1872, following the end of the Franco-Prussian war. (The mayor was trying to spruce up the city’s image.) Johann Strauss played Blue Danube, and one hundred fifty firemen took the stage of the newly constructed Coliseum to perform a piece of music by pounding on 150 anvils, which probably makes Boston the birthplace of heavy metal (sorry).

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The Coliseum in the World Peace Jubilee

Montillo also tells of the sort of political shortsightedness which has plagued governments everywhere. The Fire Chief had taken note of the unpleasantness endured by Chicago in 1871 and urged the city government to do some infrastructure investment to prevent a similar outcome. Think the city did it? Of course, after the conflagration, the media, indulging in their usual investigative acuity, somehow focused blame on the one guy who was trying to prevent catastrophe. Same ole media.

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Baked Beantown – from Library of Congress

Melville had to endure some troubles of his own. We in the 21st century may regard Moby Dick as one of the masterpieces of American literature, but it sold like three-day old fish. Melville earned less than $600 for his effort, which labors took a considerable toll on his health and maybe on his sanity. Imagine you are Herman Melville and are working on your Opus Magnus, in a place (Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MA) that is heavy with family, visitors, screaming children, constant distraction, and your family is trying to get you to stop writing, because, of course, it is the writing that is making you nuts. It is amazing to me that Melville did not take a page from Pomeroy’s book and reduce his distractions a notch. It will come as no surprise that he was quite interested in the notion of madness. It was a widely discussed issue of the day. There was direct applicability of the madness discussion to matters like sentencing. If a prisoner is considered insane, would it be ok to execute him? Montillo goes into some of the thought at the time and the thinkers making their cases. Melville’s interest in madness was certainly manifest in his book. Ahab has…issues.

Another treat in the book is some more back story on where and how Melville got some of his material. I had thought it was the tale of the Essex that had been the sole white whale inspiration. Turns out there was an earlier one. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the whaler…. I am not aware of the name of the aged whale that took out the Essex, but the earlier one was named Mocha Dick, Mocha for the island near where it was sighted, and Dick as a generic appellation, like the Joe part of GI Joe. It does, however, sound like an unspeakable beverage not on sale at Starbuck’s, so far as I am aware.

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Cover of J. N. Reynolds story Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific

Due to the joining together of a city and a multiple murderer, The Wilderness of Ruin does bear a base similarity to Erik Larson’s outstanding book, The Devil in the White City. Both tell of an awful killer, and depict a major American city at a time of great change. However Wilderness… does not deliver quite the punch of the earlier book.

First, the link between the killer and Melville lies not in their having anything to do with each other. It is in the fact that madness is associated with both of them. And that is a fairly thin tether with which to connect the two. There are added links having to do with perception of relative skull size and skin color, but I thought those were a stretch. Given how magnificently Montillo had delved into the underpinnings of Mary Shelley’s great work, I believe she would have been well served to have offered up another on Melville. It is possible, of course, that she did not have enough new material with which to populate an entire volume. And there is no shortage of material on Melville out there already. (a Google search of “Melville biography” yielded 9,460 results) Of course, I expect the same might have been said for Mary Shelley. Don’t know, but the linkage felt forced.

Second, there is not really much of a hunt for Pomeroy. He spends most of his time in the book well contained behind bars, attempting to escape his come-uppance legally, and with digging tools, unlike the devil in Chicago, who remained at his dark task for most of that tale.

Third, the title may suggest something to the author, (terminology used to describe the aftermath of the Chicago fire, perhaps) I did not really get a clear image of the stories being told from the title. I suppose Pomeroy creates his fair share of ruin, and Melville endures far too much, and, of course, the city goes all to blazes, but the title just felt off to me.

However, there is still plenty to like in The Wilderness…. That one can come away from this book with a Zapruder-like mantra, “There was a second white whale,“ is almost worth the price of admission on its own. For those who have not already availed of material on Herman, there is enough here to whet one’s appetite, without going overboard. Some of the details of 19th century Boston (Yes, the parts may not have been legally part of the Boston of the era, but they are part of it today) are fascinating. There is a nugget on the origin of a famous Poe story, from when he was stationed in Boston. The discussion on madness is certainly worth listening in on. As is an exchange of ideas about the benefits of solitary confinement. Finally, there is cross-centuries relevance to how government and media function. It will certainly come as no surprise to anyone living in 21st century America that lily-livered politicians would rather take a chance on their districts burning to the ground sooner than spend public money to protect them. And were you aware that Boston had suffered a catastrophic conflagration only a year after Chicago? (excluding you folks from the Boston area. You know about this, right?) And it will come as no surprise to anyone with a radio, television or computer that substantial portions of the media are dedicated to dimming the light by increasing the temperature. The book may not be equal to the sum of the parts, the linkages are a bit frayed, the hunt for and serial designation of the killer may have been exaggerated, but the parts are still pretty interesting. It is always a good thing to visit Boston.

Posted – 1/9/15

Publication date – 3/17/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author on Twitter

Moby Dick for free on Gutenberg

Billy Budd for free on Gutenberg Australia

Here is a wiki on Mocha Dick , and here the text of the Knickerbocker article in which that tale is told.

A wiki piece on the World Peace Jubilee

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Psychology and the Brain